, Newburyport, MA

November 7, 2013

Our view: Interpreting the will of the voters

Newburyport Daily News

---- — Tuesday’s elections left political observers with plenty of fodder to digest and scrutinize. Here’s a few things we’ve observed:

If ever there was a local election that demonstrated the importance of voting, Amesbury’s mayoral election has given us the prime example.

The initial count on Tuesday night showed challenger Ken Gray beat Mayor Thatcher Kezer by 8 votes. But there were several ballots that didn’t properly register in that electronic counting. Those ballots were counted by hand — and the results were eye-popping. Gray clung to his lead, but by just 2 votes.

Kezer has called for a recount, as is his legal right. This is a razor-thin margin of victory and certainly well within the margin that may produce a reversal of the results. Amesbury’s turmoil over its mayoral election will carry on for at least several more days.

But what is most striking is this — In a city of over 16,000 residents, the votes of two people have, at least for now, made a profound difference in the outcome of the election.

Two people made the difference — and there were about 6,900 voters in Amesbury who didn’t vote.

In Newburyport, so much of the pre-election talk hinged on the candidates’ views on the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority’s plans for its waterfront land. It was the litmus test that every candidate said was the primary issue on the minds of the voters.

The majority of voters appear to be against the NRA’s plans, at least according to the candidates who have been canvassing the electorate for the past few months. But when the votes were finally cast, was it still the most important thing?

It doesn’t seem so. If the NRA were the key factor, we would have expected a much tighter race for mayor. Challenger Dick Sullivan Jr. held the upper hand on the NRA issue, with the most decisively “open waterfront” platform in the race. The NRA has been an albatross for Holaday, as her position has migrated. The NRA’s ham-handed decision to send out thousands of “informational” fliers across the city simply turned up the heat on Holaday. Sullivan supporters saw the waterfront as the wedge issue that could deliver the election; indeed, it seemed that Sullivan’s campaign got a bump when he called for the disbanding of the NRA in early October.

We heard a number of candidates throughout the race bemoan that the waterfront debate was casting too large of a shadow, that voters were distracted from other key issues. In hindsight, the public was less distracted than thought.

We agree with Holaday’s assessment that the Oct. 22 mayoral debate was the trump card that turned the tide decisively in her favor. In debates the burden is on challengers to demonstrate why change is needed, to poke holes in the incumbent’s record, to out-strategize the incumbent. Sullivan didn’t deliver. He had been more aggressive in earlier debates, perhaps overly so, but he pulled back and seemed underprepared when the biggest stage was presented. Holaday’s poise and presentation were far superior. For undecided voters who favored an open waterfront, there wasn’t enough to swing the vote to Sullivan.

The sum total of the Newburyport elections demonstrated that there is no voter wrath, no widespread dissatisfaction with local government. Almost all the incumbents were returned, almost all of the avowed conservative candidates lost, and the open waterfront wasn’t the decisive issue.